Wednesday evening’s Frog Hollow NRZ meeting was full of irony.
The meeting began with discussion about blighted properties, including the Capitol West building. While considering possible proactive measures to take about the Myrtle Street eyesore, which is one of the first sights to greet visitors to Hartford, Glenn Geathers — Project Manager of Department of Development Services Economic Development Division — basically told concerned residents that there was nothing to be done, even though no positive changes have been made to this property in years. He said that the economy dried up the owner’s grand vision of developing this structure into condominiums. So, we’re told to sit tight and wait.
When the main topic of discussion — the “emergency” demolition of the Lyric Theater — came up, Geathers espoused the same sentiment. Sorry folks. Nothing for you to do here. Move on.
That’s a paraphrase, but not far from what could have been renamed “A Lesson in How to Alienate Community Residents and Stakeholders.” While nobody was trying to shoot the messengers, Geathers responded to every question as if it were a personal attack rather than something one could reasonably be concerned about. Hartford residents have an unearned reputation for being apathetic; however, tonight’s meeting showed what happens when concerns are raised — we’re treated as if our questions are somehow out of line. We’re given the message that we are irritating and standing in the way of “progress.” Or, we’re told that the conversation already happened. Regardless, residents’ concerns were many — from historical preservation to cost to environmental health to wondering how area businesses would be impacted both in the long run, as well as on the upcoming weekend. While Downtown might appear “dead,” the same cannot be said about Frog Hollow on the weekend. Park Street is bustling then with foot traffic. There are many shops open. During demolition, Broad Street would be closed to traffic from Park to Ward. People, business, traffic, and more could be affected by the demolition.
Still, nobody can say people were quiet about this, despite the profound lack of communication about this issue. Giselle Fernandez Feliciano, executive assistant to Councilman Torres, said that the City Council were not informed of the demolition until she began getting phone calls from upset constituents at “twenty of four [p.m.],” just an hour and a half before the Department of Development Services were to make an appearance at the monthly Frog Hollow NRZ meeting. That there was no communication within City Hall about the slated destruction of a large structure located at a major intersection (Broad and Park) is unacceptable.
Michael Fuschi, the inspector, filled out his order letter on March 18, 2010. From the details given, there’s no doubt that something must be done to correct the problem. He wrote:
Lyric Theater [856 Broad] is in imminent danger of collapse & the residential portion (585 Park) is deemed unsafe.
Lyric Theater is ordered to be demolished. 585Park St side may be salvaged, but would require structural engineer to evaluate.
When residents and stakeholders asked about the ambiguous language of this order, (i.e. how would they know that the part of the building facing Park Street would really be saved) both Fuschi and Geathers waffled. Also confusing is that the address given on the demolition order is 585 Park Street, even though verbally, we were told that 856 Broad would be the demolished section, and not Park. One resident asked if we would know in a week if that portion is salvageable. Fuschi responded with a hesitant “yes.” Between the hesitancy, reluctance to give straight answers, lack of proactive communication, and ambiguous wording, one has trouble trusting.
The demolition order, according to Geathers and Fuschi, is “about public safety. Geathers said that “bricks popping off” the Broad Street side of the building have recently fallen to the sidewalk below; a concrete cap also fell off. They indicated that the cupola would likely collapse into the building, but could end up on the sidewalk. Photographs taken inside the theater show huge holes in the ceiling. One can see the sky from inside the theater. Geathers said, “you got trees growing up out of the holes in here.” As a result, the plan is to demolish the part of the building where the theater was, but retain one portion which faces Park Street. The Park Street side (585 Park) might be saved after it’s walled off. As some noted, the demolition process could weaken the 585 Park St section of the structure, which is where they plan to store 30,000-50,000 of the bricks salvaged from the Lyric Theater. Others were concerned that the City might dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into bandaid attempts at preserving 585 Park, only to demolish that in a few years as well.
The Lyric Theater closed in 1979. After thirty years of “demolition by neglect” and a cost of upwards of $400,000 for stabilization and abatement, the City has decided to remove it via “emergency demolition” on March 27th and 28th. The inside of the theater was gutted and cleaned out over three years ago. Geathers claimed that “no one’s ever given us a proposal…for the redevelopment of this.” It’s hard to believe that the City could not have worked more carefully with potential investors/owners as to encourage a serious proposal at some point over the past thirty years.
The Lyric Theater has been sitting vacant as property of the City for years. When blight exists for this long, it can hardly be considered an “emergency.” One asks what was being done for the past several decades to maintain this building. What can we expect the City of Hartford to do in terms of other people’s blighted properties if it can not even maintain its own?
This brings us back to irony. While Capitol West sits vacant, open to the elements, and neglected, it is likely going to become the taxpayers’ problem when, no doubt, it eventually winds up property of the City of Hartford. Do we act now, or do we wait — four, ten, thirty years — and by doing so, allow another building to become so decrepit that the Department of “Development” Services decides it is more profitable to wreck a building than to preserve it? The message we got was to sit and wait.